Live From the NFL Draft: NFL Network Covers Sprawling Footprint in Chicago, Lines Up 60+ Live Remote Feeds

For the first time in 51 years the NFL Draft returns to Chicago this week, taking over the city’s Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University and a large chunk of Grant Park in what is, by any measure imaginable, the grandest-scale Draft ever held. In addition to the typical Draft-style pageantry inside the theatre, NFL Events and NFL Media have worked together to erect a sprawling Draft Town fan experience and towering Selection Square tent where the team tables and 1,200 seated fans are located this year.

“The league wanted to make this more of a Fan Fest-type festival like we have at Super Bowl,” says Dave Shaw, VP, operations and engineering, NFL Media. “So our production team worked very closely with the event team this year. There were a lot of logistics as to how to make this all work, but in the end, the fan plaza stuff they have created is tremendous and more than 100,000 people are expected to come out.”

The NFL's Draft Town in Chicago's Grant Park

The NFL’s Draft Town in Chicago’s Grant Park

NFL Media has been tasked with not only presenting a record 79 hours of live Draft Week coverage on NFL Network, but also serving NFL Digital’s NFL Draft LIVE streaming show and producing the video-board show at Selection Square in Grant Park. In addition, when the theatre goes dark on Saturday and the action moves across Michigan Ave. to Draft Town for Rounds 4 through 7, NFL Network will be responsible for coordinating feeds from each of the 32 teams’ facilities and fan parties where the picks will be announced live and integrated into the Draft coverage.

Between the Auditorium Theatre and Draft Town, NFL Network and Digital have combined to deploy 35 cameras, five Game Creek Video production trucks – all connected by 150 strands of TAC-12 fiber throughout the theatre, Grant Park, and even the prestigious Chicago Club roof terrace – where the Network has located a camera for overhead shots of the Draft Town festivities.

“The scale of this event creates logistical challenges because we want to capture just how big this Draft event is,” says Adam Acone, director of media operations and planning, NFL Network. “It’s such a great space with an amazing skyline and we need to convey that to our fans. I think we have positioned ourselves well to do that.”

A Fiber Bridge Across Michigan Ave
One of the most significant challenges facing the league and NFL Network was how to connect Draft Town and the NFL Media truck compound in Grant Park with Auditorium Theatre on the opposite side of Michigan Ave. (which will only be closed on Thursday night and remain open Friday through Saturday). After initially considering burrowing under Michigan Ave. to install a fiber path (which proved to be cost prohibitive), Acone and his team worked with the city and vendor C3 Presents to construct a 16-foot-high truss that runs over Michigan Ave.

This truss runs fiber and power over Michigan Ave. between Grant Park and the Auditorium Theatre.

This truss runs fiber and power over Michigan Ave. between Grant Park and the Auditorium Theatre.

“I don’t think we would have been able to do something like that in New York,” says Shaw. “Chicago is really hungry to do this and has really worked hard to get the league and us everything we need. We had the truss set by last Tuesday, did our cabling Wednesday – Thursday, and parked our trucks Friday, which is an amazingly fast timeline.”

NFL Media’s truck compound on the east side of Michigan Ave. is composed of NFL Network’s Game Creek Video Glory (working the primary NFL Draft show) and Pride mobile units — both with A & B trucks. Glory is handling the primary NFL Network Draft show, while Pride is working the Selection Square video-board show and shoulder programming including NFL AM, Mike Mayock’s Mock Draft on Wednesday, and the Gold Carpet Show on Thursday. In addition, HFI’s Crave VIP support unit and two office trailers are on hand with two redundant Filmwerks 500KW generators powering it all (ESPN has a separate compound down the street and NEP Trio’s Rhythm mobile unit is on hand serving C3 Presents’ Draft Town production needs).

NFL Network's truck compound in Grant Park

NFL Network’s truck compound in Grant Park

“We are maxing out our facilities here,” says Acone. “One of the biggest challenges is scheduling. In essence, we have three production teams and it’s really been quite a bit of choreography to align all the rehearsals and facilities.”

In all, 35 cameras have been deployed by NFL Media – 25 for NFL Network, five for the Selection Square video-board show, and five for NFL Digital’s two on-site studio sets. All five RF cameras (two SteadiCams, three handhelds) were provided by AVS, while Fletcher provided seven robos and an ultra-slow-mo system.

Inside Auditorium Theatre: Half the Space, Twice the Pageantry
Part of the thinking behind moving the team tables and much of the festivities to Grant Park was the slimmed-down footprint of the Auditorium Theatre, which is roughly half the size of the Draft’s previous home Radio City Music Hall.

The NFL Draft stage inside the Auditorium Theatre

The NFL Draft stage inside the Auditorium Theatre

“The theatre is about half the size of Radio City, but the beauty is it forced us to push our network sets to the side and shrink their footprint a bit as opposed to big sets in the middle of the floor as in the past,” says Shaw. “At Radio City, the fans were pushed to the back and now they are front and center inside the theatre.”

NFL Network's set inside the Auditorium Theatre

NFL Network’s set inside the Auditorium Theatre

The platform for the new set, which was created by Innovative Show Design (ISD), is so small that the network has opted to utilize a robotic camera for its primary cross-shot of host Rich Eisen, rather than a manned camera. In addition, the set features to hard cameras and a jib with audio and video teams located in the private boxes adjacent to the set.

Behind the semi-transparent LED screen shielding the second-floor green room

Behind the semi-transparent LED screen shielding the second-floor green room

In addition, due to the small backstage area, the NFL has constructed a two-story structure with the top tier serving as the green room for the 27 players attending the Draft and their families. In front of the green room is a semi-transparent LED screen that can be lit up with branded video and images or as an opaque screen that allows fans to see silhouettes of the players behind it. Three robos and two handhelds in the green room, along with a pair of robos, cover the stairs as the players walk down to the stage after being selected (shared by ESPN and NFL Network). An addition robo is located in the top balcony to provide a wide shot of the entire theatre.

The TowerCam at the base of the stage replaced the position previously manned by a large jib at Radio City.

The TowerCam at the base of the stage replaced the position previously manned by a large jib at Radio City.

Another new element deployed with the theatre’s condensed footprint in mind is a TowerCam on a dolly that can stretch from eight to 18 feet in height.

“As the [draftees] walk across the stage, our tower cam will track with them all the way to the podium where they see the commissioner,” says Acone. “At Radio City we had a jib in this spot, but we changed this up to give us new look and cut down on our footprint since the fans are right up by the stage now.”

Outside the Auditorium Theatre Thursday night was the Gold Carpet show – golden for the league’s 50th anniversary – marking the first time a dedicated 90-minute red-carpet show was produced for the draft. In previous years only live hits were shot from the red carpet area during the pre-game show. The six-camera camera show includes a robo, two handhelds and a NAC/Ikegami Hi-Motion II ultra-slow-mo.

Grant Park Welcomes Draft Town, NFL Network’s Unique New Set

Inside Selection Square at Draft Town in Grant Park

Inside Selection Square at Draft Town in Grant Park

Across Michigan Ave. in the sprawling Draft Town complex, NFL Media is producing the Selection Square show being presented on the video board to attendees. The production, which is operating out of Pride, is featuring a JITA (jib in the air) Cam, two robos (provided by Robovision), and an RF SteadiCam. After each player is picked he is escorted out to Selection Square, where he will be interviewed for the video-board show. Players will then move to NFL Digital’s Draft Town set for an additional extended interview.

NFL Network also has a small, stage-side set for NFL Media Insider Ian Rappaport, as well as inside the Theatre.

Due to the always uncertain weather in Chicago in April right off Lake Michigan, NFL Network worked with Filmwerks to design a set flexible enough to weather a potential storm or reap the benefits of a beautiful day. Filmwerks built both sides of the structure’s surrounding glass with high-grade rolling system that allows the glass to slide open and closed depending on the weather. In addition, the set features 17-foot cantilevers on the roof, allowing for 180-degree views of the Chicago skyline behind it.

NFL Network's set in Draft Town was designed by Filmwerks

NFL Network’s set in Draft Town was designed by Filmwerks

“No matter how much you plan, you don’t know if it is going to be 30 and rainy or 70 and sunny, so we had to account for both,” says Acone. “So we worked with Filmwerks to come up with this design. It’s a very unique and clean design. It opens up a lot of options for us in terms of getting the crowd involved.”

Beyond Chicago: Connecting NFL Cities Coast to Coast
As if the colossal on-site show wasn’t enough, NFL Media is also in charge of coordinating more than 50 remote feeds going into its Culver City, CA, broadcast center on all three days of the Draft. This includes 11 feeds from Chicago, 16 war room feeds, 20 draft parties around the country, 17 reporters in the field, and 10 live shots of draftees celebrating at home (including likely top picks Jameis Winston in Alabama and Marcus Mariota in Hawaii).

On Thursday, NFL Media will be bringing in feeds from 60 different locations to a network operations center (NOC) erected in Culver City specifically for the Draft. Out of those 61 feeds, 25 are multiplexed to Chicago over three fiber circuits (diverse Level 3 and The Switch paths for redundancy) using DTAGS encoding and decoding. Of those 25 feeds, three are dedicated to NFL Digital, two are diverse network return paths, and two are diverse return paths to the Culver City network control room (in case a mobile unit goes down and the show needs to be produced remotely). The remaining 18 paths are utilized to feed war rooms, team cams, player feeds, reporters in the field, and so on.

NFL Media's Adam Acone (left) and Dave Shaw at Selection Square

NFL Media’s Adam Acone (left) and Dave Shaw at Selection Square

On Saturday, things get even more complex as all 32 teams will make their picks live from their hometown facilities. NFL Media helped to coordinate on-site production teams and delivery of all these feeds to Culver City, where they will be integrated into the NFL Network and NFL Digital shows. A subset of six feeds (from the 18 routable paths) will be dedicated to those Day 3 picks, which are also shared with ESPN.

“Saturday is very unique in that the theatre will go dark and none of the picks are being made on site,” says Shaw. “They will actually be made at 32 team locations and that is our responsibility.

“I think bringing in these live feeds is what really sets us apart from the other coverage out there,” continues Shaw. “It adds an element that you can’t find anywhere else for the Draft.”

ncam Augmented Reality Gets a Test Run in Chi Town

NFL Network is experimenting with ncam augmented reality.

NFL Network is experimenting with ncam augmented reality.

As if all this heavy lifting weren’t enough, NFL Media is having a bit of tech fun as well, testing out a ncam augmented reality system outside the Auditorium Theatre with virtual graphics of draft logos and similar images against the Theatre’s façade.

“Overall, we are trying to integrate more augmented reality graphics into [our programming],” says Shaw. “We see it really adding to our studio programming, especially on Sundays. There are some pretty amazing things happening out there and I think it could really add to our Draft, Combine, and Super Bowl shows.”